Lanterns of dead

If the cemetery is an important place in the Middle Age it is because it reflects both the body of the dead and a part of the soul. And so, the possession of the funeral rites by the church is essential.


A unique architectural phenomenon will appear, located in the dioceses of Poitiers, Saintes and Limousin that is the elevation of the lanterns of the dead in the 12th century.

Lanterns of the Dead (French: lanternes des morts) is the architectural name for the small towers in stone found chiefly in the centre and west of France, pierced with small openings at the top, where a light was exhibited at night to indicate the position of a cemetery.


These towers were usually circular, with a small entrance in the lower part giving access to the interior, so as to raise the lamps by a pulley to the required height.

The only written testimony about this structure in the context of the 12th century is a passage of the De miraculis by Pierre le Vénérable where we can find a description of a lantern of the dead:“there is in the middle of the cemetery, a stone construction, with on the top a place which can receive a lamp whose light shines every night this holy place, in sign of respect of the faithful resting there. There are also few degrees through which we access to a plat form where two or three sitting or standing men can go.


These buildings are made with few meters high columns and surmounted of a headlight. They are often located in the middle of the cemetery.

The lanterns of the dead remain symbolic; they bring the light in a passage place where the bodies are waiting for their judgment and remain sometimes in the wandering…


The lanterns of the dead with the light


They can diffuse are rich of a theological and eschatological sense. They represent a true spiritual protection even corporal for both the dead and the livings. Their implantation corresponds to an area where the cemetery owns a longue tradition of legal protection, updated with the peace of God movement.

Since the 10th century, the burial places are controlled with jealousy by the ecclesiastic authority which claimed for itself the right to excommunicate or curse those who oppose it depriving them of the eternal light. It is the role of the impressive rituals of monastic curse with the church candles’ extinction or the privation of the ecclesiastic grave. Even before this period, the cemetery had a particular legal status, protected from the right of asylum since the late Antiquity period. This local immunity enabled anyone who wished to find shelter for him or for its goods. The right of asylum is vivified with the development of the peace of God movement from the end of the 10th century in the southern Gaul. The first council of Peace of God, in Charroux in 989 was followed by other councils in the ecclesiastic province of Bordeaux or Limoges.


The legal protection was reinforced by the episcopal consecration from the 11th century for the southern part of the Loire river. Indeed the first rituals of consecration or blessing of a cemetery appeared at that moment in the pontificates. Sacred by the episcopal ritual the cemetery protected the dead resting there from the impure spirits, but they rejected from the burial place’s soil those who were not part of the Christian society. Indeed the consecration of cemetery had the goal to purify the space, to affect it to the faithful graves and to defend their buried bodies from the attacks of the devils.

The lanterns of the dead can appear for some historians as opposed to the consecration of the cemetery that the order of Cluny attempted to promote in its own perspective of the sacred and sanctified space.


Lanterns of dead in the regions Poitou, Saintonge and Limousin.

In Limousin except the lantern of Saint Léonard de Noblatthat doesn’t exist anymore, the lanterns of the dead are extremely simply architecturally speaking. Some have a round shape like in Rancon, some are surrounded like in Cognac, Saint Goussaud or Oradour sur Glane; some have a hexagonal shape like in la Souterraine but a big number of them have an octagonal shape like in Felletin, Saint Barbant, Coussac-Bonneval or Oradour sur Genest.


There are almost all put on a plat-form that three or four stairs erect above the land. The height doesn’t vary so much. In OradoursurGenest, maybe the highest, the lantern is 8.86meters high. The interior is hollow and offered a passage, sometimes narrow to access the lamp. Most of the lanterns of the dead are accompanied with an altardesigned to the funerals.


In Limousin the researches took an inventory of 21 lanterns of the dead, including 15 in Haute-Vienne, 5 in Creuse and the mention of 1 in the cemetery of Dalon in Corrèze.

Cellefrouin (Charente)
Saint Agnant de Versillat
Vouillon (Indre)
Saint Victurnien
Saint Goussaud
Saint Agnant Versillat
Oradour sur Glane
Les Cars
La Souterraine
Chateau Larcher
Saint Genest
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